demanding better

This week’s kerfuffle in the UK poetry world seems to centre round the announcement of the Caffe Nero book awards and the absence of a category for poetry. Here’s my thoughts.

Some poets are up in arms about what they see as a snub to our genre. ‘How can poetry ever become popular when major book prizes ignore it?’ they exclaim, as if the world of poetry existed in a desert devoid of these opportunities. If you’re still disinterested in and/or unaware of modern poetry after creative forces such as Joelle Taylor and Roger Robinson have won the TS Eliot prize – and been widely (and rightly) publicised for their brilliant achievements – then I don’t see that poetry’s inclusion in these new awards would really do anything much to change that. What’s more, seeing as the existing categories in this new award each come with a hefty £1000 entry fee for a book (with a further £5000 to be paid should it win in its category) I suspect there’d be a vanishingly small number of poetry publishers who could take advantage, were poetry to be added as a category.

But – as far as I’m concerned – none of that’s really the point.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Corporate sponsorship is always about raising brand profile, whether that’s BP sponsoring the British Museum, or Budweiser ads round the pitch in the Premier League. These Caffe Nero awards are no different. And it’s therefore right and good to scratch beneath the surface of the company behind them. Do that, and you discover Caffe Nero’s history of turning a very healthy profit while paying very little tax.

Now maybe that doesn’t matter to you. Sure, the country’s falling apart, our hospitals are crumbling, and the lovely indie coffee shop in town is closing down because it hasn’t got accountants who can exploit the same loopholes as certain coffee chains, but so what?

That’s a point of view, but it’s not one I subscribe to.

I believe we should be doing more than running along behind companies’ slick media campaigns while hoping for crumbs from their table. If we’re ready to critique BP’s involvement with the British Museum as nothing more than greenwashing their brand, then it’s every bit as incumbent on us to do the same with sponsors of awards where poetry could have some skin in the game. It’s time to wise up and hold corporations to account, demand others do the same, and take some small steps toward a better world.

Over to you, poets.